Tuesday, December 7, 2010

92: Fantastic Four #20

Fantastic Four #20
August 8, 1963

  • In this issue, we meet the villainy of the Molecule Man! And ... it's not a great success. No, he may not be as bad as any number of early Iron Man or Thor foes, never to be seen again - yet he would appear only sporadically over the decades, and usually command neither respect nor fear. One has to wonder if it's due in part to the rather off-putting visual design - did Kirby actually create a look so creepy that the readers didn't clamor to see more? - but Stan sadly has to shoulder the blame for, it must be said, completely forgetting to give the character any engaging personality at all! In fact, only much later would he receive the surprisingly unique portrayal of a neurotic suffering from a massive inferiority complex, and it was this version of the character that would become most known for his roles in (the classic) Secret Wars and (the not so classic) Secret Wars II.

    Note the plural: "universes". Is this Marvel's first hint
    of a multiverse, slipped in the careless words of a Watcher?

  • In fact, if we're being completely honest here, the writing is a bit of a disappointment all round. (In Stan's sudden desire to spend more time on the other heroes, has he mistakenly given the FF short shrift?) In addition to the rather bland villain, the plot's pretty lame too. After an opening scene in Reed's lab, Uatu the Watcher appears - in an inexplicably obscure fashion - to warn them about the Molecule Man. They then find and fight him, in a scene which lasts nearly half the book! It finally becomes a bit interesting, as they find themselves first on the run, then hiding out in Alicia's apartment ... but by that point there are precious few pages left, and nowhere left to go. Superhero fiction may ostensibly be a subset of the action genre, yes, but when the bulk of your story is one long, uninterrupted fight scene? There's not enough meat on them bones.

    Make no mistake: That's one creepy-looking dude.
    (Though still an improvement over his first face, above.)

  • An additional oddity is the issue's confusing approach to the title's own history. As mentioned, the FF is first contacted by the Watcher, whom they first met on Earth's moon back in issue #13. And, y'know, bringing back that character wasn't strictly necessary. (The villain didn't need to be foreshadowed for just a couple of pages, and they didn't need a preexisting character to do it.) But Stan was already recognizing that the readers responded gladly to familiar elements - one of the reasons he began having the characters guest-star in each other's stories - and so aimed to make use of it here. And yet! Not only does the story reuse the plot device of the Baxter Building being snatched from its foundations whole cloth - without any reference to the first time it happened in Fantastic Four #6 - but it also confuses us by having the story open with Reed discovering something shriveled and organic in a newly obtained meteor, which he says "proves that some form of life must exist in outer space!" Well, yes. And you've encountered them - some half a dozen times in these first twenty issues alone!

    Ben's street-level irritants show their own particular brand of loyalty.

  • After last issue's discovery of a fan letter from later Marvel writer Steve Gerber, a careful perusal of this issue's letters page reveals a couple of famous names as well. First up is accolades from a Fantastic Four Fan Club in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, signed by its secretary, a 10-year-old Mark Gruenwald. This was a cherished, if poignant, surprise. In the 1980s, Mark's work as a Marvel editor and writer was deeply significant to me, and his sudden death at age 43 hit me in a way I wouldn't have expected, given that I'd never met the man. His presence is still missed, some 14 years on. A second surprise in the letters column, however, comes from a George R. Martin in Bayonne, New Jersey. This couldn't be from the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author, could it? Turns out: Yes it could! And, from what he says, that printed fan letter led him to where he is today....

    The FF heading off, in search of a better story.